Churchhill Theatre’s “Superstar” a Triumph

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“The Last Supper” scene in CHT’s production is here recreated with reflections of the famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci – Church Hill Theatre 2019 production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” Photo by Steve Atkinson

Church Hill Theatre’s production of Jesus Christ, Superstar is a remarkable testimony to the depth and quality of theatrical talent in the local area. Directed by Shelagh Grasso, the production runs through June 23. Anyone who follows musical theater should make it a point to attend.  The show is currently sold-out for its entire run. However, if you don’t already have reservations, just show up for one of the three remaining performances and ask to be on a wait-list. There are always some no-shows and the theatre has been able to seat a number of extra people at each performance.

From its appearance in 1970 as a “rock opera” concept album with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, Superstar challenged preconceptions. A musical dramatization of the last week of Jesus’ life, it attracted attention simply for its subject matter, especially because of the often ironic take on the characters’ motivations and attitudes – notably its sympathetic treatment of Judas. Originally banned by the BBC for being “sacrilegious,” the album became an international bestseller, with more than 7 million copies sold by 1983.

Jesus (Mark Weining) with Mary Magdelene (Stav Pinder) and a crowd of followers.

The album’s success led to its opening as a Broadway musical in October 1971. The cast included Jeff Fenholt as Jesus, Ben Vereen as Judas, and Bob Bingham as the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas. Yvonne Ellman as Mary Magdalen and Barry Dennan as the Roman governor Pontius Pilate reprised the roles they sang on the original album. Carl Anderson, who had the role of Judas on the album, replaced Vereen when he fell ill, with the two alternating in the part after Vereen’s recovery. The Broadway production ran for 711 performances. The show failed to win a Tony Award, despite racking up five nominations, but Lloyd Webber received some recognition in the form of a Drama Desk award as “Most Promising Composer.” The play opened in London’s West End in 1972 and ran for eight years straight – London’s longest-running musical at the time. Superstar was the third collaboration between Webber and Rice, who both went on to become major figures in the modern musical theater, with such hits as Evita, Cats, and The Phantom of the Opera — just to name a fewto their credit.

Superstar was made into a film – shot in Israel and other Middle East locations – in 1973, with several of the Broadway cast again reprising their roles. A second film version, released as a video only, was shot in 1999 and broadcast on PBS’s “Great Performances” in 2001. And on Easter Sunday 2018, NBC produced a widely-acclaimed live concert version of the play, with John Legend in the role of Jesus.

So Church Hill’s production has high expectations to fulfill. As Grasso said following the opening night performance, the local theatrical community came together in several months of hard work and pulled off a stunning performance.

The choreography by 2016 Washington College graduate Kendall Davis is spectacular. 

The “rock opera” designation is accurate in the sense that the dialogue is almost entirely sung – only a few lines are actually spoken. It is also accurate in that the vocal demands on the main characters, as far as range and projection, go a good bit beyond the average musical. So all the main roles need to be in good singing voice, and in addition, there is a significant element of choreography in many of the roles. The cast — which covers an age span from a 13-year-old to several in their 70s — makes it all work. It’s as powerful a piece of musical theater as this area has seen in a long time.

Mark Weining, who plays Jesus, is visually an excellent choice for the role.  He looks like Jesus!   And his voice and acting chops – developed in numerous roles at CHT – are up to the challenge. The dramatic demands of the part – possibly the single most significant figure in the history and culture of the last two millennia – are obvious: the actor must walk the line between deep sympathy for the problems of the poor and oppressed and the authority of a major prophet – perhaps even a god incarnate. And in the second act, after his arrest, the role of martyr becomes predominant, with all the attendant physical pain and psychological doubt. Weining brings it all off powerfully.

The role of Judas is central to the play, and Max Hagan does a fabulous job. Both in his vocal numbers and in his acting, he brings a strong presence to the role. High energy and passion. Keep an eye on him even when he is to the side of the stage – his reactions to what Jesus and his followers are doing are as important to the overall plot as what is happening in the center of things. Hagan stands out – as he should.  Note that he is dressed in red and black while Jesus is in a pure white robe and his followers and the various other characters wear shades of black and white but mostly gray.  It is not coincidental.  Hagan shows how Judas is genuinely concerned about the direction Jesus’s movement is taking and Judas fears that it will lead to more persecution and oppression of the Jewish people by the Roman authorities.  Judas also thinks that by betraying Jesus, he is fulfilling a prophecy and that Jesus understands, even wants, the prophecy to be fulfilled. This Judas does not want “Blood Money” and is in agony when he begins to understand that he has been used by the high priests to help them get rid of a “problem”.

Jesus (Mark Wiening) and  Judas Iscariot (Max Hagan) with Peter (Bob McGrory) and Simon Zealotes (Nevin Dawson)

Stav Pinder takes the role of Mary Magdalene. She is a delight. Her strong singing voice shows to good advantage in the show’s big ballad, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” And as the show’s single significant female character, her role takes on greater importance. Her training and experience in opera are clearly visible.  Her ability to interpret a song, not just hitting the notes but bringing emotion and meaning to the lyrics, is highlighted in songs such as “Could We Start Again, Please” and “Everythings’s Alright.”

Stav Pinder as Mary Magdelene, sings one of the most beautiful melodies in the show, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” 

Doug Porter and Brian Whitaker are well cast as the high priests Caiaphas and Annas.  They are appropriately sinister and imposing – and they sing their roles well. Porter’s low voice is just right for lines such as “We need a more serious solution to our problem.” And it sends absolute chills down the spine when they join together with other male voices–including Ken Gresh,  David Ryan,  and Goldy Vansant–to intone “This Jesus must die, must die, must die.” CHT stalwart Matt Folker is also well cast as Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who “washes his hands” of the decision to condemn Jesus to crucifixion.  Folker ably conveys Pilate’s inner conflict;  his reluctance to punish–or worse yet, crucify–what he considers an innocent man.  But the crowd demands crucifixion.

Matt Folker as Pontius Pilate – Church Hill Theatre 2019 production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” 

Bob McGrory is very good as the apostle Peter, who pledges his fidelity to Jesus, then denies him three times when he is arrested by the Romans. McGrory also has a fine voice that blends beautifully with Pinder’s in the duet part of “Could We Start Again, Please.”  Nevin Dawson plays Simon Zelotes, who tries to persuade Jesus to ignite the Jews to rebel against Roman oppression.  His solo is one that really rocks the crowd with piercing “yips” and “yelps” about the “power and the glory” that Jesus will bring.  The crowd here does a wonderful dance routine that ends with both Jesus and Simon on high platforms and the crowd raising their arms in jubilation.

Doug Porter as the High Priest Caiaphas 

Speaking of the dance scenes, Greg Minahan, who polished his dancing chops with the Broadway musical Cats, gets a show-stopping number as King Herod, coming across as a slick hustler leading a chorus of floozies in a soft-shoe number – one of the show’s best bits of theater. Minahan deftly tosses his hat and cane to one of the guards and joins the chorus line of dancers. It got laughter and thunderous applause on opening night.

Greg Minihan as Herod with his chorus line.

A lot of the impact of the show depends on the ensemble — at many points, there are some 30 bodies on stage, dancing, adding their voices to the chorus, reacting and interacting with the main characters, and adding spectacle and considerable emotional power to any given scene.  A good number of the ensemble members have at one point or another been in lead roles themselves in other shows, both here and in bigger venues. And several say in their cast bios that performing in “Jesus  Christ Super Star” is a “bucket list” item for them. That level of commitment comes across in the performance. There are too many such crowd scenes to mention all but a good example of this is the Temple scene where Jesus throws out the greedy money lenders and then is surrounded by a crowd of lepers, all desperately hoping for a miracle. The lepers–including Heather Byers, Connie Fallon, Jane Jewell, Helen Vansant, and Fred Welsh– creep, crawl, stumble, and limp onstage frantically trying to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe. Watch for Natalie Lane, Melissa McGlynn, Laura McGrory, Colleen Minahan, Shayla Moore, Krista Roark, Becca Van Aken, and several others who are absolute dancing dervishes in multiple scenes.   Kudos to all.

At the temple, a group of lepers approaches Jesus with hopes of a cure.

The “community” tag is especially apt in that many family groups are part of the cast. Bob, Laura, and Maya McGrory are father, mother, and daughter. Greg and Colleen Minahan are a brother-sister team., both of whom have worked professionally on stage and screen. Matt Folker and Becca Van Aken are a husband-wife team, as are Goldy and Helen Vansant. Folker and Van Aken met and married at Church Hill Theatre–literally.  After several years of acting in various productions together, the couple staged their own wedding ceremony right there on the CHT stage. And the family connections extend to behind the scenes as well, with director Grasso’s husband Carmen doing set construction and their son Chris doing sound design. Chris Grasso brought the impressive professional sound system used in Superstar from Upper Darby, PA, where he is a chemistry teacher who moonlights as a sound technician.  Chris Grasso will also b providing sound equipment and assistance for this summer’s Green Room Gang productions.  Stage Manager Michelle Christopher brought in her husband Speedy for set construction and their son Speedy Jr. to operate the light board, and a second, younger son was frequently on hand during rehearsals, running errands and helping out. And Irma and Tina Johnson, who worked on costumes, are sisters-in-law, married to two brothers, one of whom, actor and singer Jim Johnson, is on stage as one of the apostles.

Judas goes to the high priests to tell them where to find Jesus. 

The rock quartet that provides the musical foundation for the show consists of Tom Anthony on bass guitar, Helen Clark on keyboards, Frank Gerber on drums and Quinn Parsley on lead guitar. They make up a driving band, with Anthony’s bass lines often carrying the main melody line and Parsley adding a visual “rock star” flourish at various points. If you wonder how they kept it all together musically, adjusting on the fly to variations in each performance, listening for cues, waiting for entrances or audience laughter and applause to subside, well, they are being guided by the show’s musical director, Julie Lawrence, who is keeping time and directing it all from just off stage where the band and most of the singers can see her but the audience can’t. An impressive job by all.

The set, designed by director Grasso and her husband Carmen Grasso, is a large set of scaffolding occupying the entire width of the stage and rising three levels. With the large cast filling it for many of the production numbers, it gives the performance weight and depth that emphasizes the significance of the action taking place. A nice example of “less is more.”

Nevin Dawson as Simon Zealotes 

Tina Johnson, Irma Johnson, and Debra Ebersole deserve much credit for the costumes, which cover a range from period-believable robes to punk modern and several stages in between. And Kendall Davis, a recent Washington College graduate, took on the choreography for the show — no easy task, given the age range and the varying levels of experience of the cast, but the results are spectacular.

As a musician myself,  I am more of a jazz and blues man but the performance of the music in Jesus Christ Superstar was outstanding. If you can possibly see it, do so. There are occasional points where one actor or another is weak on the high notes, or where the lyrics are hard to hear over the band. However, I was sitting on a back row aisle seat and found that even there I was able to easily follow 90% or better of the lyrics/dialogue – which is about as good as you can get with any production whether onstage, in a movie theatre, or even at home watching TV (where we always turn on the subtitles!).  This kind of clarity requires careful and precise enunciation and practice, practice, practice so that 30 people are always singing the same note and pronouncing the same words clearly at the exact same time. How many times have you seen a play or movie and half the time couldn’t understand certain characters who slurred or mumbled or spoke too quickly? This ensemble does not suffer from that common problem, for which great credit is due to director Grasso and musical director Julie Lawrence. All the principal characters had individual mics which also makes a big difference.

The pace of the show is fast with quick scene changes covered by music and hardly any blackouts. The stage lighting, designed and programmed by Kat Melton, is used very effectively to establish both the setting and the mood. A scene may start with bright blue lighting and then morph to gold or pale reddish orange.  The final scene, the crucifixion, is done basically with lighting variations including the projection of a cross in a halo of light.  It is very effective, though I felt it went on a bit too long.  That, however, is a fact of the script and the score and not a flaw in this production.  In fact, this reviewer, at least, didn’t find any major flaws in the performance as a whole.  It’s a must-see production of a world-famous show.

Peter denies that he ever knew Jesus. (Sarah Ensor and Bob McGrory)

Superstar will be playing through June 23; performances are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. According to the theater, all performances are sold out; however, come to the theater as there are always people with reservations who fail to appear. Reservations that are not picked up by 10 minutes before curtain will become available. So don’t be late if you do have reservations!  Tickets paid for in advance will not be given away, so don’t worry if you get caught in traffic. If you do need to cancel, please let the box office know. Admission is $20 for the general audience, $15 for CHT members and $10 for students. Call the theater at 410-556-6003, or visit the theater website.

All photos by Steve Atkinson, courtesy of Church Hill Theatre

 

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The Destruction of the Supreme Court by Al Sikes

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Politics and the Supreme Court, intentionally, have a tense relationship. Indeed Franklin Roosevelt, when President, attempted to expand its membership so it would find more of his programs constitutional. The Court has the final say and its jurists enjoy lifetime tenure.

Beyond the structural differences, I can recall arguments in my constitutional law classes regarding the extent to which popular opinion influenced decision-making. Purists preferred to think the Court, being supreme, sits well to the north of the grubby fights about the legal way forward. Most know, however, that politics play a role in the appointments, confirmations and even considerations. Most Americans hope, however, that lifetime tenure invites wisdom.

But, let me leave the classroom and turn to the court’s complicity in what are fraught times.

I believe Roe v. Wade (the decision that discovered a constitutional right for abortion) was wrongly decided but decided it was and that occurred in 1973 on a 7 to 2 vote. The opinion was written by Justice Harry Blackman, an appointee of President Richard Nixon; the Chief Justice was Warren Burger, also appointed by Nixon. Both identified as Republicans. One of the dissenting justices, a Democrat, Byron White, was appointed by President John F Kennedy. Politics is inevitably part of the court’s history.

But, when politics seems to overwhelm the court’s deliberations, its authoritative position deteriorates. Indeed it has led the current Chief Justice, John Roberts, to give multiple speeches on the need to elevate Supreme Court decision-making.

The Boston Globe reported that “Roberts has been on a mission to convince the public that if the court is ideologically split, it is about law, not politics.

‘‘We do not sit on opposite sides of an aisle, we do not caucus in separate rooms, we do not serve one party or one interest, we serve one nation,’’ Roberts told an audience at the University of Minnesota in October.”

Today political parties divide along sharper edges than in 1973. Presidential and U.S. Senate campaigns often turn on Supreme Court appointments or issues. And today’s socio-political divisions often turn on the Roe decision.

We need clarity, if the Supreme Court wishes to step back from the raw edge of politics. It needs to hear a case on abortion restrictions that will result in a decision that answers rather than raises questions. It should not choose a case that leads to a minimalist decision that ducks the core issue. America needs to know when a woman’s right to an abortion is protected and when the States are allowed to restrict that right.

I say “when the right to an abortion” is legally protected because conservative jurisprudence honors precedence and the Roe decision was decided 46 years ago and the decision was not a partisan one decided by the slimmest of majorities.  

Yet, my concern is not so much the jurisprudence, but the social and political unrest that persists because the Court has chosen not to settle the constitutional issue. The failure to define the scope of the 1973 decision has led to toxic battles in State after State.

Also, the Supreme Court seems increasingly tethered to Presidential elections. The President will always appoint, but this power should not be the pivotal influence in voting decisions. If Justice Roberts wants to return the Court to a revered institution, he should guide it toward resolving the abortion issue. Indeed, now seems to be just the right time because the Court is still closely divided and the Chief Justice has both stated and shown an interest in decoupling the Court from the overwrought politics of the day.

Law students for generations will study and debate the Roe V. Wade decision. But, the health of our Supreme Court must be restored. Justice Roberts has diagnosed the problem. Only decisive action by a largely unified court will re-elevate the judicial seats each jurist occupy.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

 

Out and About (Sort of): Shamelessly Ignored by Howard Freedlander

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U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s decision to delay the placement of Harriet Tubman–an American hero and Dorchester County native who led hundreds of slaves to safety through the Underground Railroad–on the $20 bill represents a shameless decision by the Trump Administration to disregard a courageous woman and African-American icon.

Mnuchin claimed it was more important to redesign the $10 and $50 bills first for security reasons, to prevent counterfeiting. The Tubman redesign, already moving toward completion, according to news accounts, was slated to appear in 2020, the 100th anniversary of suffrage. Her image was to replace President Andrew Jackson’s.

Tubman would have become the first woman on American paper currency.

Combating what he considers “political correctness” has become the battle cry for Trump. It underscores the president’s reluctance to condemn the white supremacists who protested in Charlottesville VA in August 2017, leaving one woman, a bystander, dead in the confrontation.

While some may argue that an image on a $1 or $5 or $10 or $20 or $50 bill makes no difference when you’re reaching into your wallet to buy groceries or a beverage in a convenience store, I believe that symbolism is important. It projects not only an image of a hero or a nation-founder–but highlights what we Americans consider as cherished values we wish to honor.

For example, the image of Abraham Lincoln on the well-used $5 bill reflects what he meant in preserving our united country when it was falling apart and fracturing itself over slavery and state’s rights during a disastrous Civil War. His political resilience and strong resolve enabled him to withstand personal attacks, Union defeats early-on and an unconscionable war on our own turf.

Gracing our ubiquitous $1 bill, George Washington represented our young nation’s character and gumption in rebelling against British rule and establishing a country free to determine its own future. He embodied integrity and common sense.

Harriet Tubman should be on the $20 bill. Now.

The decision to delay a redesign to 2026 or 2028 once his boss is out of office—assuming he wins reelection in 2020—smacks of cynical decision-making. He wanted to avoid a temper tantrum by his boss in the White House. He wanted to deflect criticism by Trump’s conservative base against what it might consider undue political correctness.

Trump’s fondness for the populist Jackson is well-known. A slave owner, Jackson was responsible too for the 1830 Indian Removal Act, which pushed more than 60,000 Native Americans from their lands and onto the infamous Trail of Tears.

Tubman continually risked her life to lead slaves to freedom, to shake the yoke of oppression. She freed herself in 1849. Over 11 years she helped hundreds gain their independence from bondage.

During the Civil War, she was a Union spy whose most notable achievement was the liberation of 756 people in one day in a raid on the Combahee River in South Carolina that destroyed four of the Confederacy’s most successful plantations and resulted in recruiting more than 200 black men into the army.

Though we have become accustomed to Trump’s decisions that forsake decency and compassion, I find the delay for seven to nine years of placement of Tubman’s image on the $20 bill an appalling insult to women and the African-American community.

Slavery is an indelible stain on our national legacy. Recognition of Harriet Tubman, who freed herself and then hundreds of others from the physical and mental imprisonment of slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, would place an uneducated, determined black woman in the pantheon of American heroes. She belongs there.

Mnuchin’s decision was disgraceful. Unfortunately, it wasn’t surprising.

Embrace of our “better angels” is an elusive quality in the Trump Administration.

 

Glory in the Details by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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“Think big,” they told us. “The bigger, the better,” they said. “See the big picture,” they advised. Well, maybe…

But we all know better. That big picture they would have us see is made up of a million little pixels. Glory is in the details.

I’m certain this is not news—fake or otherwise—to any of you. The sums of our lives are the minute-by-minute totals of our daily routines. The details matter; they create depth, texture, color. They make us authentic. Unique. Even Ernest Hemingway, our safari guide to the art of living large and living macho, knew this: “Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguishes one man from another.” Hardly profound, Papa, just rarely observed.

It takes practice to appreciate detail. It’s so easy to gloss over things (I know because I do it all the time), but if we can just slow down for a moment and take that (dare I say it?) big, deep breath, we might actually smell all the aromas in that crimson rose that hangs over my neighbor’s white picket fence. Forget the forest, forget the trees; look for the vein pattern in each leaf and you just might find the secret to curing cancer.

But there is also a curse to living in the zone of detail. My wife’s palate is absurdly sophisticated. Her taste buds are always on high alert; I can’t slip anything by her. Who knew that ketchup can only made by Herr Heinz or that mayonnaise must only come in a Hellman’s jar? Don’t even think about substituting a pat of margarine for butter, or adding even a pinch of tarragon to the spice mix. She may be a good Catholic girl, but her salt better be kosher. The other day I made a vinaigrette salad dressing and added the tiniest drop of honey mustard to the recipe. A touch of sweetness, or so I thought. She tasted, sniffed, and put down her fork. “Did you put honey mustard in this?” she asked. “No,” I lied. “Don’t you like it?” “No (pause), it’s fine. It’s just a little sweeter than usual.” She proceeded to eat the salad—most of it, anyway.

But I won’t be deterred. I’ll still practice the ancient alchemy of distilling the water of my life from the purest of streams, using only the finest barley. I’ll toast the mash over a fire with just a hint of peat and age it in oak casks finished with rum and port. I’ll call the finished product whisky—no “e.” I am, after all, a Scot!

And if, by chance, I take a wee dram or two of my elixir and begin to see this seemingly drab, grey world through rose-colored spectacles, I’ll try to savor each precious moment as if it were my last, which (God forbid!) it won’t be because after all is said and done…

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Remembering Son of the Eastern Shore Clayton Mitchell by Steve Meehan

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Former Maryland Speaker of the House and Kent County political scion Roy Clayton Mitchell, Jr. died June 13, 2019 at his home in Kentmore Park. Clay Mitchell was a son of Kent County through and through. Born and raised on his family farm, he never strayed far from home. The Mitchells were leaders in Kent’s agribusiness economy and residential development throughout the 20th Century. The site of the R.C. Mitchell & Son still sits along the rail line in Kennedyville. It was logical for him to enter Kent County politics.

Mitchell was part of the last generation of that faded halcyon period of Maryland politics when the Eastern Shore still voted for Democrats and their representatives could advance to leadership in the Legislature.  By the 1986 Election, he was Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and eyeing the Speakership. The 1986 Democratic Primary was contentious. Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer beat Maryland Attorney General Stephen Sachs.  The outcome ushered in a new generation of statewide leaders who supported Schaefer and drove public policy for the next decade, including Mitchell who was elected Speaker in 1987.

For Kent County and for me, it was fortuitous.

Kent County had a triumvirate of political leaders who had backed Schaefer and delivered access to the Governor: Mitchell, along with the late County Commissioner Wallace D. Miller and Elmer E. Horsey, then-Chestertown Mayor, Schaefer confidant and campaign treasurer of most of his statewide races.  

Teel and Clayton Mitchell

At the time, I was a student at Washington College and had recently been fired as a reporter by then-Kent County News editor Hurtt Derringer to make way for a journalism school graduate.  Fortuitously, I bumped into former colleague Joyce Willis, then-Social Editor of the Kent County News, at the old Chestertown Bank, both of us entertaining the prospect of creating a two-newspaper town.  We emerged an hour later from a borrowed conference room and The Pilot newspaper was born.

Joyce Willis was the dean of the Kent County press corps to the extent that could exist in a one-paper town.  She started at the Kent County News in the 1960s when Bill Usilton, the publisher, ran the Kent County News and Harry Russell, the editor, ran Kent County.  The paper had its operations at Cross and Cannon Streets, now the site of the Sultana Center. By 1986, Joyce had over 25 years of reporting under her belt and unfettered access to the local political elite, of whom none were more powerful than Mitchell, Miller and Horsey.  

Over the next two years, I took a total immersion course in the art of The Scoop that opened up the fascinating world of Maryland politics to me.   

Clay Mitchell was a generous subject. He had an open door policy for the Pilot staff.  Mitchell liked to get out front of stories. Dee Cockey, his gatekeeper, would add me to The Speaker’s call back list whenever a local story was brewing so he could come off the rostrum and deal with it.  The greatest insight came when invited to Great Oak Landing on Friday nights to hear war stories. These sessions reinforced my impression that Mitchell possessed that rare quality of anticipating the needs of politicians and their constituencies to forge consensus without bloodletting amidst the swirl of angst, anxiety and egomania of the legislative session. Calm and controlled, if the man had a temper he buried it deep: never angry or mean words, but great insight on political motivations.

Mitchell left politics early enough to enjoy his retirement.  He and his wife Teel, a Belle of Kent County, were positive, creative people who enjoyed life, good humor and independence.  That life view rubbed off on their sons, Clay, Chris, and Mike, and the next generation of Mitchells.

Rest in peace, Clay.  Your time here was well spent. Your legacy is ensured.

Steve Meehan is an attorney practicing in Chestertown, Maryland.  He was publisher and editor of The Pilot Newspaper, Chestertown, Maryland, from 1986-1988.

Women’s Rights are Human Rights

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Missouri. Georgia. Alabama. Arkansas. Kentucky. Mississippi. Louisiana. Ohio. Utah. These are all states that have made news recently for passage or enactment of extreme abortion legislation.

It is important to understand that even in those states where such bills have been passed and signed into law, such as Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Ohio, those laws have not yet gone into effect. They will be challenged in court, and will likely be struck down, as recent attempts at such restrictive abortion laws have been in other states, including North Dakota and Iowa. The legality of abortion, as constitutionally guaranteed by Roe v. Wade since 1973, will not change… yet. Accessibility and affordability of safe and legal reproductive health care are other matters, but these laws will not be enforceable until and unless the Supreme Court decides to take one of them up.

What is more worrying right now is the hostility and hypocrisy of the purportedly “pro-life” legislators who have written, defended, and voted for these bills. There is no way to understand the abortion debate without recognizing that supporting these policies is exactly the opposite of life-affirming or life-supporting. When abortion is illegal or inaccessible, more women die. That’s it. More women die. This is a known fact, and has been for decades, and any legislator who writes or supports these laws, and any governor who signs them, is signaling as clearly as possible his or her belief that women’s health—women’s lives—are not worth protecting.

Restricting access to legal abortion has only a minimal effect on abortion rates. When they are denied access to reproductive care, including safe and legal abortion, women and girls are driven in desperation to ingesting toxic substances, self-inflicted abdominal trauma, other attempts at self-induced abortion by horrific means. They turn to unregulated “back alley” practitioners who may or may not have training, experience, or knowledge, who may or may not practice proper hygiene, who may or may not have benevolent motives, and who in all cases are unsupported and disincentivized to seek qualified medical support should something go wrong. So, more women and girls are injured, sometimes permanently. More women and girls die.

The Guttmacher Institute, one of the most widely respected and cited research organizations in the area of reproductive health and rights, reports that abortion rates remain about the same regardless of legality, concluding that “restrictions simply make the abortions that do occur more likely to be unsafe.” This reality is worth restating: restricting legal abortion does not appreciably lower abortion rates. It only increases rates of injury, illness, and death in women. Supporting restrictive abortion laws is not a pro-life position.

Debates rage in this country about basic issues concerning the well-being of children and parents, including maternity leave, subsidized child care, public preschool, and so many others. Policies that force women to give birth against their will are doubly cruel because they strip women of their rights to self-determination and bodily autonomy and then abandon mothers and babies to a system that is currently without strong social safety nets.

The unfortunate conclusion to be drawn from this contradiction is that these anti-abortion policies do not arise from “pro-life” beliefs at all, but instead from a wish to control women’s lives through their bodies. Were this not the case, there would be far fewer examples of so-called “pro-life” politicians who have insisted on and paid for abortions for women in their lives—indeed in some cases, when the women did not want to terminate the pregnancy. Nor would legislation be written or enacted that forces women to carry to term fetuses that can never survive outside the womb.

There are many examples of laws and social standards that recognize the right of humans to protect their own lives when competing interests exist. We require prior permission or consent from immediate family to use the healthy organs of people who have passed away, even when people’s lives depend on those livers, hearts, and kidneys. We do not require bystanders to risk their own lives by entering a burning building to save others’. It is commonly accepted, even a cliché, to put on our own oxygen mask before helping someone else. Women need no less protection for their bodily safety and autonomy and their physical, economic, and social resources, and no less acknowledgement and respect for their inherent human rights.

Maria Wood returned to academic life in 2014, after a two-decade career in the music business, earning a BA in American Studies and a Certificate in Ethnomusicology from Smith College in 2018. Most recently, she served as Deputy Campaign Manager for Jesse Colvin for Congress.

Two Friends Talking: Resilience

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Editor’s Note: Welcome to the Spy’s most recent effort in using the podcast model as one of our many tools in telling stories. While we welcome our readers to watch these broadcasts, they have been created with listening in mind, without significant editing, and to be enjoyed as a long-form presentation.

And that is undoubtedly our intention here as the Spy starts a new series entitled “Two Friends Talking.” Knowing of the joy, humor, and a good bit of wisdom that comes when two close friends sit over coffee and chat about a serious subject, the Spy was eager to find some way to share the remarkably educational moments that come with that exchange. Beyond the hard talk of local politics or neighborhood chatter, these conversations can unexpectedly drift from the mundane to the intellectually-demanding task of understanding the meaning of words like faith, compassion, death, kindness or forgiveness.

While many nationally-broadcast programs bring well-known personalities together for such dialogues, the Spy wanted to bring this kind of exchange to the local level; respectfully listening to, and learning from, the heart-to-heart talks of those in Talbot County known in the community as being both wise and candidly self-aware.

Two of those that truly fit that bill are Amy Haines (founder and owner of Easton’s Out of the Fire) and her friend of many years, Mid-Shore artist and educator, Sue Stockman. And with the Spy’s eternal gratitude, these fearless two have agreed to be part of this experiment.

Once a month, Amy and Sue will randomly select a word out of a large bowl filled with dozens of words that the two agreed in advance on as worthy of a conversation. All of which was to take place one Sunday every month in Amy’s cozy basement.

Beginning each program with the aromatherapeutic benefit of burning a bit of palo santo, Amy and Sue plop down on the sofa with that one word for thirty minutes for thought-provoking, humorous, and sometimes touching moments of reflection.

This month: Resilience (part one)

This video is approximately twenty-five minutes in length.

 

Of Geese and Golden Eggs by George Merrill

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Early spring this year, we put in a new lawn. It lies between the porch and the creek. One morning, from the porch I saw two geese standing on the lawn just by the shoreline. They looked furtive, eyeing me sideways, like shoplifters.

I went to shoo them off. They didn’t retreat an inch, but viewed me with sidelong glances of suspicion, as if to ask just who did I think I was. They honked intermittently, their tones hushed, as if they were grumbling. Then, shamelessly, they began feeding on the grass.

Enough!

Even as I chased them, they’d move slowly, waddling away with an air of defiance. It was the way pedestrians, who like to stick it to drivers, saunter at a snail’s pace making street crossings.

Geese have no business here. If they were behaving properly like Canada geese should, they’d be long gone along with their kin, off to northern climes. Instead, these two settled for the land of pleasant living, where the green grass grows all around, offering succulent fare to sate their insatiable appetites. Incidentally, this amounts to putting away a staggering 10 percent of their body weight in grass daily. And then, too, when compared to goose poop, human waste smells like Chanel. A muddy field chock full of goose droppings is the stuff of nightmares and even Rotor- Rooter, no stranger to unsavory challenges, wouldn’t touch the stuff with a ten-foot pole.

With regard to a goose’s characteristic ‘honking,’ seasonal changes and numbers can affect their repertoire. In the summer, the population is sparse and so we have mostly solos, a few duets, and occasionally, but rarely, small ensembles. There aren’t that many choristers around. In fall and winter the populations swell so we hear choral extravaganzas, geese performing in casts of hundreds. Just who is on key and who’s off is hard to tell. Individually geese sound binary – as though there were only two tones in their vocal range; a preliminary warm up and then a sort of vocal crescendo, as if successfully expunging a hairball, or in this case, a feather ball. They repeat it over and over again. It’s hardly melodic. Some Shore hunters, even if they can’t hold a tune, may grow remarkably proficient in imitating the ‘honk,’ even snookering some geese into thinking he’s the real McCoy.

Honking is distinctive if not alluring. Oddly, the phenomenon of honking earned recognition as an expression of piety some years ago. I began seeing bumper stickers that read, “Honk if you love Jesus.” This was a strategy of identifying the faithful while driving cars. In the absence of any other identifiable qualities like faith, love, patience, kindness, long suffering, forgiveness and the like, by just leaning on their car’s horn, believers could proclaim their faith. If one driver’s horn became too insistent, his piety could be misconstrued as road rage. Whether for man or beast, a honk is more than just a honk.

But to return to the two geese feeding on my new lawn . . .

The geese presented a moral dilemma for me, a challenge to my core beliefs. I say I believe in the sanctity of the natural world and all its creatures, whether I like them or not. I like to believe I do unto others as I would expect from them and offer hospitality to the stranger. I have helped others in trouble, and, at least on a few occasions loved others as I knew I was loved.

No matter what I tried with the geese, nothing worked; they might waddle off after I fussed at them, but only to return a few hours later and eat the grass. I was furious. My wife and I erected dowel sticks and stretched strings along the shoreline – surely the string would prohibit their huge bodies getting through. They simply flew over it.

I knew of a man in the neighborhood who loves guns. We call him Rambo because he relishes shooting at whatever moves . . . or doesn’t. One day in a snit about the intransigent geese, I caught myself engaged in an imaginary conversation with Rambo about dispatching these geese. I really got onto it; How much per goose? What about the carcasses? What about DNR’s legal restrictions? What if a neighbor saw it? What about anonymity? In this imaginary conversation, not once did I feel shame.

In a moment of truth, my imagination exposed me to the superficiality of my own moral pretentions; an imaginary gun had stripped me of any moral pretensions, and it was still smoking. I was settling for cheap grace, by practicing a morality of my convenience.

I want to make a point: morality is not a sound bite. It’s an inner conviction of value, an innate understanding of what is worthwhile. It’s like a GPS; it shows the way but I still have to make the choice.

Sure, I could contract with Rambo at 100 dollars per goose. If the geese could not be persuaded otherwise, and if I decided to go with Rambo to solve the problem, I’d dodge the expense of planting a new lawn – a formidable sum – for the cost of roughly two hundred dollars.
It is not on earth as it is in heaven. On earth two-hundred dollars is good deal, but in heaven’s exchange, the sum is valued only at thirty pieces of silver.

Making boundary violations for birds and animals an offence punishable by death, is morally bankrupt. It betrays what I ultimately value, the truths I wish live by. It also betrays a failure of imagination. Belief and action aren’t necessarily the same. The exercise of moral courage is never convenient. It’s not popular because when seriously practiced, it comes with personal cost.

Circumstances, not moral courage, got me off the hook. I was not forced to make a decision about the trespassing geese. They had stopped showing up and so I never had to contend directly with my darker side.

Moral concerns like these, in far greater magnitude, are being savaged in today’s political climate. The Environmental Protection Agency has been put in the service of Mammon, not the environment for which it was founded. The agenda is being driven by power and profit and few seem to exhibit shame, and worse yet, even care. ‘Losers’ (the vulnerable, like the environment and its inhabitants) don’t have a voice. I know this will sound naïve, but imagine if we (I) could consider matters of our mutual life together with greater imagination. Imagine we could explore boundaries as ways to include and not alienate or get rid of. Imagine that we could explore gender differences with humility without fear and retribution, all with the ultimate objective of understanding and acting wisely as members of a shared creation.

One of America’s great environmental visionaries, Aldo Leopold, once wrote: “Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free.”

In the human story, our fatal flaws keep haunting us; we manage to kill the geese that lay the golden eggs.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

“Poem for Nonnie” by Annabelle Jane Swift

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Annabelle Jane Swift and Carol Mylander 

Whenever anyone asks me about summer, I tell them about my grandmother.

She lives in a small city so we walk to breakfast and make our own postcards. We eat dinner in the backyard, watermelon and humidity. These are the only early mornings in my childhood. And the children still sit on that picnic-dinner table while she paints their portraits.

There are swimming pools in every story I write. Every day, the blue of the water stays the same and I try on different words to describe its color. She works all day so I can have this: the sunburns and the golf carts, the dogs and the way the paper looks like it is lit from behind the words. I dive into the water when it gets too hot.

We take a long weekend. Still waking up early, that form of karate in the park by the water. I can never remember its name. I learn an important lesson in writing: sometimes the right words do not come.

I have lived in many places but nowhere do the roads dip down to kiss the water like this. We can taste the sea glass, the way the green pieces are nostalgic, the smooth of the blue on the soles of our feet. Sea glass is one of those things that can make me smile whenever it crosses my mind.

Annabelle Jane Swift

The cobblestones of Chestertown do not look as good in my postcard renditions, but never mind. I finish my first book during one of those summers. The first short story I have been so proud of. For the first time, there are birds in my poems. Trees and the boats on the river. I have fair skin, but I will not hide from the sun. I move and move, but never mind. Every summer is Chestertown. The local theater puts on another musical. There are more poems to be written, even if I can not always find the right words. She has books for the years of her life, too. She stacks books like I do, plays piano for the whole house to hear in ways I was so scared to.

In a story I wrote this year, I described the mother the way I think of my own. “A force of nature, like her mother before her.” The biggest compliments I know how to give are all about being strong like these women I know, being sensitive like the girls and being independent like the women.

When I was younger, I wrote that I could not imagine my grandmother being scared of anything. I can remember every summer thunderstorm that kept me awake. I had enough fear for both of us, I decided.

There are stories that force a moment on you after you finish them. It is quiet and you feel the weight of something large. It is the best feeling. It is the feeling I get late at night in my grandmother’s house, when the only sound is of the ceiling fan and her snoring.

 

Annabelle Jane Swift lives in Denver, Colorado and was born there. However, she is a 13th generation descendant of some of the original founders of Kent County and one of the first in her family who was not born on the Eastern Shore.  She is currently a third-year student at the University of Virginia, where she studies law, philosophy, and writing, and is a member of Kappa Delta sorority. She is an accomplished musician, playing piano, guitar, ukelele, and flute.  She has also done stand-up comedy at a campus club.  When she was a little girl and her parents offered to send her to summer camp, she said she wanted to go visit her Nonnie instead.  So every summer for years she went to “Camp Nonnie” in Chestertown. Annabelle is the granddaughter of Chestertown resident Carol Mylander and has spent many happy weekends and holidays in Chestertown and Kent County with field trips all along the length and breadth of the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

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